The Fight for Rights

George Washington Lee was born to a mother who was illiterate. His stepfather was abusive. When his mother died, Lee was raised by his sister. Against all odds, Lee graduated from high school.

Lee became a Baptist preacher of four churches. He was also an entrepreneur having both a grocery store and printing business. Lee became an activist in his community in Mississippi and fought for voting rights.

African Americans were denied the right to vote through poll taxes and literacy tests. The Sheriff refused to accept poll taxes from African Americans denying them the right to vote. Lee and another grocery store owner founded a local chapter of the NAACP. They took the sheriff to court and gained access for African Americans to vote. Although virtually all of the African Americans were registered, the White Citizens Council used intimidation and other pressure to purge them from the voter rolls. Lee continued to press for the right to vote.

While driving his car, a gunman pulled beside Lee’s car and shot him three times. Lee died before arriving at the hospital. The sheriff declared Lee’s death a traffic accident. Lee’s death created national awareness of the oppressive nature of the Jim Crow laws of the South. His death also inspired other activists to fight for voting rights.

How can a country call itself a democracy when it makes it all but impossible for some of its citizens to vote? Lee’s death was in 1955. It took another 10 years until there was a national voting rights act.

Voting rights remain a national concern. Voting rights continue to be threatened largely through limiting accessibility to voting places or limiting the time for citizens to vote. Many of these laws limiting access are based upon spurious claims of voter fraud. Political campaigns are often based upon fears of what will happen if “they” get the right to vote.

Who are the George Washington Lee’s of our time? Are citizens who believe in the concept of a democracy willing to stand up for basic rights such as voting? Will business leaders, civic leaders, and elected government leaders who are supposed to represent all citizens be willing to support basic rights such as voting?

Just imagine what our society would look like if voting was not just, but a requirement as is the case in some democracies? Just imagine what it might take for our elected officials to go from fear of making it possible for everyone to vote, to working to support the needs of all voters? Just imagine how true voting rights can expand the effectiveness and access to other rights?

* * *

“Pray not for your mom and pop. They’ve gone to heaven. Pray that you made it through this hell.” – George Washington Lee (A line from a speech he gave to 7,000 people on month before he was killed)

How To Use

Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.